It's a brave new world for DVD junkies like Kristine Hassell and Andy Munich. “Four years ago, the Valley couple gave up watching television entirely
“Four years ago, the Valley couple gave up watching television entirely —
“Quite honestly, the quality was not that good,” says Hassell, 24 — and instead signed up for Netflix, the online DVD rental service that lets subscribers rent discs by mail for a monthly charge.
“We just decided what we'd do is, since so many shows are being released on DVD, that's how we'd watch them,” Hassell says.
They kept up on favorite shows like “Veronica Mars,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Wire” and watched new ones back-to-back, rather than having to wait a week or longer for new episodes. “We watched ‘Lost' in a day and a half,” Hassell says. “It's almost like crack.”
Hassell and Munich, 26, are much like the more than 4 million subscribers to online DVD rental services like Netflix and Blockbuster Online: They say renting videos by mail — without having to go out to the video store or wait for something to show up on TV — has freed up their schedules.
“We're more free at nights,” Hassell says. “If we want to go to a concert or drive to L.A., we can. We're not tied down waiting (for a television show).”
Like many fellow online DVD renters, they're also — thanks to the monthly subscription model, rather than a per-DVD charge — more willing to give an unfamiliar show or movie a chance.
“If a movie's bad, you throw it in the envelope and send it back,” says Mike Kaltschnne, editor of the industry observer Web site Hacking Netflix (hackingnetflix.com) and a subscriber to both Netflix and Blockbuster Online. “I would never do that with my local video store. I'd say, ‘I spent five bucks on this, I'm going to sit through it!' ”
Which makes sense to Netflix. Founder Reed Hastings fashioned his company after the fitness club model: Charge a monthly fee that actually earns more of a profit on those who sign up but use it infrequently.
Online DVD rental companies account for a healthy chunk of the $300 million to $350 million annual business in digital downloads and subscription services in the United States, according to Jupiter Research analyst David Card.
The industry leaders are Netflix, which created the market in 1999 and ships an average of 1 million DVDs daily, and Blockbuster Online, a subscription service started in 2004 by beleaguered but still behemoth retail company Blockbuster.
But it's a competitive market, with more than a dozen subscription services available and many potential customers up for grabs: Blockbuster projects up to 12 million subscribers to DVD rental companies by 2008.
That's still a minority in the shadow of the masses who rent at brick-and-mortar stores. Yet with technologies like “video on demand” several years away from mainstream use, analysts say online DVD rental is more than a stop-gap measure; it's a digital revolution.
Of course, it's a revolution with a bit of irony: It's 21st-century technology that relies on the old-fashioned post office for delivery.
Hassell's mailbox would rust shut — she pays her bills online and corresponds with people via e-mail — if it weren't for the familiar red Netflix envelopes that get delivered. When they show up, she can't help but be excited.
“We're very big on the whole send-it-out-to-us,” Hassell says laughing. “The moment that red envelope comes, I'm like, ‘What is it? What are we going to watch?' It's like Christmas.”
SO WHO RENTS ONLINE?
According to both Netflix and Blockbuster Online, their customers represent a wide cross section of America. Netflix says its customers are somewhat more educated and, of course, more computer-literate, with a little higher household income. It's also a little more heavy on the X chromosome — its subscriber base is 54 percent female. Within that, though, we found a few online DVD rental archetypes in the Valley. Some are casual users. Others admit to constantly “grooming” their queue, or list of upcoming rentals. They all say that renting DVDs online has changed how they spend time on entertainment.
Shaun Stuart • Gilbert, 37
Stuart joined Netflix last year, after some friends recommended the service. Not a heavy renter before then — probably hitting the video store every month or two, but even then “they're always out of stuff,” he says — and not much of a DVD buyer, he says the convenience of popping the rental discs back in the mail has meant he's watching a few more movies than he normally would. (Of course, the family, including his 2-year-old daughter, gets to pick a movie from time to time.)
That increased viewing is typical: Netflix says its users say they rent twice as many movies per month as they did before subscribing.
“I love it,” Stuart says, adding that he's not the kind of guy who's clamoring for new technology like video on demand: “My computer is in a different room than my TV.”
Kimberly Jendrick • Mesa, 29
Jendrick, a stay-at-home mom, has kissed late rental fees goodbye, and with her one-DVD-at-a-time subscription to Netflix, she coordinates watching favorite TV series with another friend who also has a Netflix subscription: She rents one disc from a season of, say, “Stargate SG-1,” and makes sure her friend has the next one ready to go.
“Basically, we have no gap,” she says. Then she laughs. “Because we're losers.”
The growth of television on DVD has further tossed the old broadcast paradigm into upheaval — it takes the commercial-skipping idea of digital video recorders like TiVo to their next logical extension: Now fans of a show can watch an entire season of episodes back-to-back.
THE WORD-OF-MOUTH ADVOCATE
Michael Mennenga • Phoenix, 42
From a studio in his home, Mennenga, left, hosts radio talk shows largely about science fiction books and movies (also podcast at dragonpage.com). He's tried both Netflix and Blockbuster Online, and prefers the former.
(He's a heavy Netflix user: The average Netflix user has rated over 200 movies; Mennenga says he's rated 6,400.)
The radio host regularly talks up Netflix on his show as a way for listeners to rent movies that might be too obscure for the neighborhood rental store.
“(Netflix) should be paying us,” he says, chuckling. “We send so many people to them for free. But they're a good service. We don't mind doing that.”
Netflix thrives on word-of-mouth, according to Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey, pointing to a poll that showed 95 percent of subscribers recommended the service to family and friends. “That's still our best advantage” over competitors, he says.
Pieter Kapsenberg • Chandler, 22
Netflix says 4 percent of its customers watch DVDs on computer. Kapsenberg, a chip designer for Intel in Chandler, takes that to the extreme: He has no television, only watches movies on his PC.
“I don't like TV,” he says, “just movies.”
Mostly, he sticks to Hollywood fare, a lot of action-adventure stuff, 563 films in all at last count. But only about 60 of those, he says, are DVDs he's purchased. Many were burned from copies rented from Blockbuster Online in college and, now, Netflix. He has binders of burned DVDs near his computer.
It's not exactly legal. But it's surprisingly easy to do, with free software available online to accomplish the task.
Customers like Kapsenberg are the reason even mail-delivered DVD services like Netflix are investing attention and money in video on demand.
“That's why we named the company Netflix,” says Swasey, “not DVDsByMail.”
How to get started
HAVE NET AND PLASTIC
Of course, you'll need an Internet connection. A credit card or debit card is also required to sign up.
THE QUICK GIST
Depending on the subscription plan chosen — the standard is three DVDs at a time for $15 to $20 — you can rent as few as one or as many as eight DVDs at a time, which are mailed to you. There's no return deadline. When you ship a DVD back (using supplied, postage-paid envelopes), the company will mail the next selection on your list.
TAKE YOUR PICK
Netflix (netflix.com) and Blockbuster Online (blockbuster.com) are good first choices. But take a moment to scan the selection on their Web sites and search for available titles. If you need more niche fare, there are several boutique services available:
• Greencine (greencine.com) — Based in San Francisco, this company specializes in more independent fare. Also offers adult titles, which are not stocked by Netflix or Blockbuster.
• Clean Films (cleanfilms.com) — Offers more family-friendly films and edited versions of mainstream fare.
• Intelliflix (intelliflix.com) — Smaller selection than the majors, but also a few dollars cheaper for some subscription plans.
• Anime Takeout (animetakeout.com) — Specializing in Japanese animation, or anime.
• Gamez n Flix (gameznflix.com) — Offers subscriptions of both video games and DVDs.
Sites like ChooseDVDRental.co.uk (choosedvdrental.com) offer side-by-side comparisons of many rental services.
TRY BEFORE YOU BUY
Look for free trial offers — many services offer two-week trials — and take the time to search on the Web for “coupon codes” that might bump your trial to a full month.
Once signed up, fill your queue — the list of movies you'd like to rent — with plenty of selections. If a movie at the top of your list isn't available, you'll be sent the next available one.
Netflix took a cue from online retailer Amazon.com by offering user reviews of its movies, which most other rental services now provide. Based on ratings you give movies, you can get a robust list of recommended other titles. Netflix also offers a chance to gather friends, fellow Netflix subscribers, to compare queues and offer personal recommendations.
SWITCH IT UP
Most services make it easy to change subscription plans month to month or even, in the case of Netflix, upgrade on the fly — though you'll pay a prorated fee for the additional DVDs rented.
NETFLIX VS. BLOCKBUSTER
For comparison, we subscribed to both Netflix and Blockbuster Online:
Both have Valley distribution centers, but we found Blockbuster often took two days to process what Netflix took only one.
Differences in DVD selection between both companies were negligible in most cases. (Both Netflix and Blockbuster Online claim more than 50,000 titles in stock, compared to about 7,000 at a Blockbuster store.)
Heavy Netflix users — those, according to reports, who routinely have
DVDs back in the mail quickly — might be “throttled” (Netflix delays shipping the most popular movies to them).
Blockbuster gives subscribers four coupons every month for in-store rentals. A must-have mainstream title can be picked up immediately.
Like many users we questioned, we found the Netflix site quicker, better laid-out and more robust than Blockbuster Online